The Undercard By Brandon Weigel

The Undercard: In the Shadow of American Pharoah

A year ago, the dark gray clouds over Pimlico opened up and unleashed a monsoon, turning the track into a muddy mess. Lightning flashed above, and the infield and stands were ordered to be evacuated.

And yet the field of eight horses, including Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah and the two horses that finished behind him, Firing Line and Dortmund, proceeded to the starting gate.

Maryland Jockey Club President Sal Sinatra "could not be found anywhere, so we didn't know what was going to happen," joked Bob Baffert, American Pharoah's trainer, at this year's Alibi Breakfast, an annual gathering of trainers and owners ahead of the Preakness Stakes.

"The rain was coming down, we were getting nervous, we didn't know what to think," said Baffert. The number one spot in the starting gate, where American Pharoah was set to post, "looked like a river."

But the deluge that hit provided some comfort to the horse's owner, Ahmed Zayat, and his son, Justin Zayat, the manager of the family's stable.

"It's funny, because my dad said something before, and we discussed how we either like it when it's monsooning, pouring or if it's a little rain," the younger Zayat recalled after the breakfast. "You don't like that in between where the track becomes sticky and muddy. So once it started raining, I was like, 'Oh crap, Dad.' Then all the sudden, monsoon. I'm like, 'You got the monsoon you wanted.'"

"It was nerve-wracking, but we always had confidence in American Pharoah, and I remember seeing [the other horses] that day acting up and he was just chilling and enjoying the rain, taking it in," he continued. "He's an all-weather horse. Especially after the [rainy] Rebel [Stakes in Arkansas], we knew how he'd take to it."

The rest is history. Pharoah romped through the slop to win the Preakness and went on to a decisive win at the Belmont Stakes that June, ending a 37-year Triple Crown drought. Months later, in October, he won the Breeders' Cup Classic, the first horse to win all four.

After the years of waiting, near-misses, and disappointment, the Sport of Kings had the champion it so craved. Not surprisingly, the Alibi—so named because trainers at the breakfast, which dates back to the '30s, would make excuses for their horses—this year reveled in Pharoah's accomplishments, including the awarding of a Special Award of Merit to Baffert, Zayat, and the rest of the team.

Even when it came time for Baffert to talk about his horse in this year's Preakness, Collected, the questions from hosts Scott Garceau and Keith Mills inevitably turned back to American Pharoah.

"With all the trainers in here, we've all been lucky to have these good horses, and when they're getting ready to leave, it's like you're getting ready to send your kid to the army or somewhere," said Baffert. "You're thinking, I wonder if he's going to be able to sleep well at night. Who's going to be giving him his carrots? He's going to wake up in a different stall."

"But he went to a fantastic farm," he continued. "He's living the life. And he's great at whatever he does. In the breeding shed, he's great. He's just killin' it there, he's killin' it."

The crowd ate it up. Any why not? In a beleaguered sport like horse racing, reveling in the success of American Pharoah gave horsemen and horsewomen a chance to celebrate all that's good in their game.

Of course, the hangover also cast a shadow over Nyquist, this year's Kentucky Derby winner who had the unenviable task of trying to make it back-to-back Triple Crowns, the first since Seattle Slew and Affirmed in 1977 and 1978, respectively.

As fate would have it, there was plenty of rain in the forecast.

"His versatility is a huge part of his strength," said Nyquist's trainer, Doug O'Neill.

"And this race, there's definitely a lot more speed, so [jockey] Mario [Gutierrez] will have to do his magic and break clean and just figure out where a good position is, and we're very optimistic about how it's going to unfold on Saturday."

On the day of the race, the skies above Old Hilltop were once again gray, and rather than a monsoon, there was an on-again, off-again drizzle. Tragedy struck early on, with two horses, Homeboykris and Pramedya, dying in the first four races. Their deaths were not acknowledged in any official way at the track.

As the Preakness grew closer, the rain intensified. The singing of 'Maryland, My Maryland' and the mounting of the contenders went on in the downpour, just as it had last year.

In the race, Nyquist broke clean, but rather than stalk the lead, as he had in the Derby, he chased the speedy Uncle Lino, eventually surging to first place in the backstretch. As the pack rounded the last turn, Derby runner-up Exaggerator powered past the field. Nyquist gamely tried to catch him but didn't have the steam, settling for third.

There was much to celebrate in Exaggerator's jockey-trainer tandem of brothers Kent and Keith Desormeaux, who both cut their teeth here in Maryland. But the day's proceedings also offered a more somber reminder: Horse racing can break your heart.

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